Wordle: A factional skirmish for the soul of technology
So check out today’s Twitter beef.
You know all those emoji squares that have been popping up everywhere? That’s Wordle. It’s a bracingly earnest word puzzle web app deliberately built to a non-commercial ethos.
Wordle is a darling of the press because of its artisanal, small-batch sensibility. No compulsion loop—you get one puzzle per day. The score-sharing tweets are informational, instead of promotional. The tweet isn’t about getting your friends into a conversion funnel.
It’s about showing off your adventure and prowess.
Cue the stormclouds: a guy came in, saw the cultural fervor for this, and decided to build a paid, native application, using the same name and design. Taking people for $30 a year if they keep the subscription, this Pirate Wordle started printing money.
And its developer decided to tell Twitter about it, making him the day’s Main Character:
Zack Shakked gushes about the game he cloned.A schism in tech
The Wordle beef happens at a particular cultural fault line. Information technology has politics of all kinds, but one of the most strident is described on a spectrum:
Technology used for: joy and wonder...sacks of money
Software automation is incredible. It offers leverage unlike anything we have ever seen. You can be worth billions of dollars because you build something that solves broad-scale problems for just $0.003 a user.
Sofware is all margin.
Which attracts the money fetishist.
Money’s only something you need in case you don’t die tomorrow.
Martin Sheen said this in Wallstreet, and it fucked me up for life. You can’t unsee it.
This is absolutely an age where having money has become synonymous with safety and security. I can’t fault anyone for trying to be okay, nor being strategic about it.
But some of us are building an entire identity around being the sort of person who has money, can get money, is the ultimate money chessmaster.
They’ll go through any trial proudly for access to a capitalism lottery ticket.
So, for the money fetishist, software is an irresistable lure. Software is a lottery ticket dispenser. There are scratcher tickets, like building indie software. Those are occasionally gushers of a win.
But the scale goes all the way up to lottery tickets in the shape of a term sheet for massive investment to build a company. Assemble the right team, seize the right market, and you’re a billionaire.
For this group, joy in computing is not always central to their goals. Mostly their participation in information technology is a cold calculation: “how many disposable robots can we build to seize a market?”
Computing’s true believers
To the other end of the spectrum, this posture is off-putting, even revolting. For better or worse, the opposing faction truly believes in the power and wonder of computing, for its own sake. Money is a second order concern to pursuing the magic of making sand have dreams.
It wasn’t always obvious—either individually or societally—that the computer was a money printer. For some folks, the computer was simple fascination. An all new frontier, defined by different rules than our everyday existence.
Everything that makes computers good at money also makes them interesting.
For many, huge chunks of a lifetime have been dedicated to exploring the power of a digital realm. Building up skills, knowledge and imagination for a playing field that’s not always intuitive, but so often rewarding as you develop mastery.
This is also a path to lottery tickets. Sometimes exploring the frontier leads you to a gold mine. But on this side of the spectrum, you’ve got people eager to explore computing as a creative endeavor first, grabbing what money they can in case they don’t die tomorrow.
Wordle exists at the maximal edge of this non-commercial ethos. It’s earnest in its humane approach. Instead of an engagement treadmill, Wordle is a limited, daily treat. Rather than promoting Wordle, the tweets for announcing a score simply describe the player’s adventure for the day as a score with some emoji. No URL.
In the context of Wordle’s cultural froth—all these articles, all these score tweets—developer Zach Shakked saw an opportunity. To take Wordle’s name, concept, and design, then strap a yearly subscription price to do it. Where the original Wordle was written for the web, this clone was built as a native iOS app, the better to capitalize on Apple’s built in payment system.
My bias here: I think that move is tacky as hell, and quite possibly legally actionable. You can draw your own conclusions.
Quite a few more took exception to this approach. Kottke sums up the prosecution’s case succinctly:
This person stole Wordle (a game @powerlanguish invented), put it on the App Store, and is now crowing about how rich it’s gonna make him. 🤬
What this beef can show us is a fault line in the culture of those who participate in technology. Some for fun, others for profit. This is a long-brewing conflict, and you can find the seeds of it going back generations.
This Wordle beef gives you a model for this conflict that’s small and fast enough to dissect as it happens.
But it’s not the only beef you’ll find in Wordle town. Did you know what those scores are like for screen readers?